Your horses’ body is continually moving. As a rider your body must absorb, respond and adjust to the moving base on which you are seated. Your mind simultaneously needs to be focused, aware, and softly present.
For many riders, yoga remains an underutilized tool. A well-developed yoga practice helps you achieve sound mental focus and improved body and breath awareness – all tools that benefit any rider.
Yoga will help you to have an improved awareness of and control over your breath. One of the main tenants of yoga is the practice of Pranayama – or breath control. “Prana” is breath or the vital energy of the body, and “ayama” means control. So, Pranayama literally means “control of breath”. In Yoga, pranayama is not only the synchronization of breath with movements, there are also distinct breathing practices.
Every rider knows the importance of the breath. Ever find yourself cantering and suddenly you are feeling winded? You have forgotten to breathe. As Sally Swift wrote in her book Centered Riding “You can breathe your horse to quietness. You can breathe him past things that scare him”. And she is right. Correct breathing will reduce tension in your body, and enable you to develop better connection to your equine partner.
The Pranayama practices of Yoga help us to slow our breath, and to adjust non-optimal breathing practices. Through Yoga, you will explore your current patterns of breathing and focus your attention on those that can be altered to achieve a calmer body and mind.
For example -
Do you breathe through your nose or mouth? When you breathe through your mouth, you activate the fight or flight response in your body. It is not calming, and your horse will react accordingly. When riding, make sure you are inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils.
When inhaling, do you fill up your chest or your belly? Most people breathe from their chests and only use the top portion of their lungs. This type of breathing means your body is in a constant state of hyperventilation. In contrast, a deep belly breath utilizes all three portions of your lung and calms the body. Further, a deep diaphragmatic breath pattern also helps to lower your center of gravity, contributing to a more effective seat.
When you exhale, is it a quick and rapid action or slow and steady? Your exhalation should come from deep within your body cavity – from down around your pelvis. A slow, lengthy exhalation releases tension from the body. Think about this in conjunction with your downward transitions – canter to trot. Breathe your horse through the transition with a long, slow exhale.
As a rider, you have undoubtedly been told to achieve “perfect balance” or a “balanced seat” while riding. No human or horse has perfect balance. No rider maintains perfect balance in the saddle 100% of the time.
From my point of view, “balance” is the intersection of alignment, attention, and strength. It is your innate ability to maintain balance even when you are out of balance. A great horseperson has strong body awareness. You have an intuitive ability to recover and regain balance (over and over again) as you and your horse move as partners.
The asana practices of Yoga are essential to improving our ability to balance. The postures help you develop a solid core, and build strength in the muscles. And, it equips you with the focus and mental stillness necessary to pull it all together.